Baroque Lovers' Afternoon

Baroque Lovers' Afternoon

August 20 at 3:00 pm
Central United Methodist Church

Program Notes

The farthest we go back this afternoon is to the start of the 17th century, when the full flowering of Italian vocal composition had secured a place in the hearts of European music. One of the most popular forms was the madrigal, traditionally a texted, contrapuntal work for four to six voices. The madrigal’s origins may be traced to older vocal forms such as the frottola and chanson, but what sets it apart is the degree of expressivity and chromatic experimentation, its popular strain, and the quality of its poetry. Among its many practitioners – and arguably its most dynamic and adventurous voice – was Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613), Prince of Venosa. Any introductory tour of the madrigal stops to pay homage at Gesualdo’s door, for both his music and his life vivify the best and worst of boundless passion.

At his worst, Gesualdo was jealous and cruel, at times morose and depressed, and dabbled in mystical adoration of relics and occult objects. He killed his first wife and her lover when discovering them in flagrante, but he was acquitted—such was the time and such was his standing among the local aristocracy. In his music, Gesualdo made significant contributions to the elevation of text as the driver of a work’s expressive style. Taking Monteverdi’s innovations to their logical extreme, he dissected poetry for its affective heart, and then created radically new levels of dissonance and harmonic devices that could capture the power of deeply-felt emotions.

Composers throughout the past four centuries from Lully to Rachmaninoff have been inspired by the predictable harmonic formula known as “la folia.” Folia apparently stems from a Portugese peasant dance. This dance was a festive, joyful group song involving drums and tambourine. The term itself may derive from folle (crazy), although numerous different etymologies have been proposed. Already in the early 16th century many of the characteristics familiar from later folia were set: it featured a repeating, ground-bass chord progression above which virtuosi of the day would improvise or ornament an existing melodic line. It proved most popular in Italy during the 1600s, but already by mid-century it had migrated to France (witness examples by Lully and Marais) as well as Germany.

Perhaps the best known instance is the final work in Arcangelo Corelli’s Opus 5 sonatas (1700). Corelli’s sets of trio sonatas alternate between two prevailing systems or styles of the era: sonate da chiesa or church sonatas (Opp. 1 and 3), which typically include four movements, slow-fast-slow-fast; and the sonate da camera or chamber sonatas (Opp. 2 and 4), which are made up of a series of popular dances. Nominally, at least, the distinction seeks to keep secular dance music out of religious spaces, but the rule was not strictly observed. The Folia at the close of Op. 5 remains one of the most engaging variations sets on this beloved theme. Of course, as a violin virtuoso, Corelli could inject brilliant instrumental textures at will, but the movement is equally endowed with passages of simple beauty.

English composer William Croft (1678-1727) began his musical education as a choir boy in the Chapel Royal under the organist and composer John Blow. He became organist for St. Anne’s Church in Soho around 1700, and at John Blow’s death in 1708, he ascended to Blow’s previously-held positions as composer and “Master of the Children” at the Royal Chapel and organist at Westminster Abbey. If anyone had his finger on the pulse of English sacred music at the turn of the century, it was Croft.

Because his church positions required so much of his time, his oeuvre does not boast much secular work. Today, however, we hear one exception to this rule in “Ye tuneful numbers.” Croft’s song treats a subject that, by this point in time, was already baked into the DNA of so much secular English music: unrequited love. The text names the Greek goddess Astrea as the target of the singer’s love, and likely for a couple different reasons. As the virgin-goddess of innocence and justice, Astrea makes the perfect object of a reputable young man’s affections – an 18th-century Anglican listener could hardly fault the boy for pining after purity herself. On the other hand, by likening his love to that for a goddess, the singer simultaneously admits how unattainable this woman feels to him. And Croft’s music allows the audience to experience the singer’s emotional reactions to this situation in real time with lyrical lines which are at first plaintive, then self-pityingly slow, until finally the singer reaches the point of resignation, though he does not appear to arrive there without some animus. No one said unrequited love felt good, but Croft was one of many who held the belief it was the perfect vehicle for expressive vocal music.

Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) was probably as close as one could be to a “celebrity” composer in 18th-century Germany. His creative output was truly staggering, with over 3,000 works to his name, spanning an incredible range from cantatas to oratorios, operas, concertos, chamber pieces, keyboard music, and more. Much of this musical legacy originated from the period after Telemann was installed in Hamburg in 1721 as Kantor at the Johanneum Lateinschule. He also served as musical director of the five (!) principal churches in the city.

Telemann had ample opportunity in his various roles to compose a great deal of instrumental works throughout his career. Like Bach and others in German lands, he adopted the Italian concerto form that had moved north across the Alps around 1700. The three movements of his Horn Concerto in D show the conventional fast-slow-fast arrangement. The main theme begins in the ensemble and quickly passes to the solo horn; one cannot claim great originality for this opening idea, but it nevertheless showcases the lovely timbre of the natural horn – as well as the agility of the accomplished player. Turning to the minor mode for the central Largo movement, the affective contrast is obvious. Here Telemann takes every opportunity to give the horn soloist lyrical freedom. The stately tone would make it appropriate even within a sacred setting, such as an oratorio or passion. Listeners may be forgiven for thinking the finale was written by Vivaldi himself, as the hallmarks of that composer’s style (simple chord progressions, use of harmonic sequence, and conversational exchanges between solo and ensemble) are everywhere in evidence. The entire work lasts about 10 minutes.

© Jason Stell and Emily Masincup, 2022